History of the Smiths Falls Public Library

Andrew Carnegie's Mentorship: The Building of the Smiths Falls Library

Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish-American, whose fortune was estimated at half a billion dollars, spent $43,000,000 to establish libraries throughout the world. In 1902, G. F. McKim, of Smiths Falls, wrote to Carnegie requesting a library grant. A grant of $11,000, which never had to be paid back to the Carnegie Foundation, was used to build the first library. In the minutes of the first recorded Library Board meeting we read, “On the 25th of January, 1902, Mr. G.F. McKim had a letter from Andrew Carnegie, Esq., 5 Fifty-First Street, New York, in answer to a letter asking for $10,000.00 for a public library, saying that he would give that amount if the town would provide a site and agree to maintain the library.”

A committee, consisting of C.B.Frost, F.I. Frost and W.H. Frost, matched Carnegie’s grant penny for penny. The Frost committee paid out $500 a year for 20 years to pay for the upkeep of the library. Town Council also paid an annual grant of $500 for the same purpose. An additional committee consisting of Mayor James S. Gould, G.I. Frost and G.F. McKim, supervised the construction. The first stone was laid on June 3, 1903, and the building was completed February 25, 1904.

Smiths Falls had the honor of showing Carnegie the very first of the libraries he had donated to, during his first visit to Canada. On the mantel in the reading room of the library there was a photograph of him in a frame. He noticed it and offered to put his autograph on it. In an instant it was out of the frame and borrowing a pen he wrote: “A rare pleasure to visit a library I have given. Success to Smiths Falls.”

The autographed picture was lost to the library for many years and after an exhaustive search was rediscovered during the 2002 restoration project. The portrait now hangs on the wall in the library to commemorate his visit.

More About Our Early History

A visit to the Smiths Falls Library was also part of Carnegie’s first Canadian tour, although this took place only because of the extraordinary persistence of the Smiths Falls Library Board. Their first letter to Carnegie on the subject was sent in March, 1906:

I WRITE TO EXTEND an invitation to you to come to Smith’s Falls on your approaching visit to Canada. We have built what is said to be the handsomest and most complete small library in the Province with the money so kindly given us by you and we would very much like the pleasure of showing it to you. I notice you go from Ottawa to Toronto. To do so you must needs pass through Smith’s Falls and we would esteem it a great honour as well as a pleasure to have you stay here for even a few hours.

A courteous but negative response came from Carnegie’s private secretary, Bertram.

MR. CARNEGIE TENDERS his thanks for your kind invitation to visit Smith’s Falls and see the Library on his approaching visit to Canada. Mr. Carnegie regrets that the few day he will be in your country will be so fully taken up that it will be impossible for him to take advantage of your kind offer, but he begs to send his best wishes for the prosperity of the Smith’s Falls Library.

But the Board wrote again, assuring Carnegie that he would be “picked up at the train, delivered back again and in all ways looked after,” and he consented to come. The Smiths Falls Board minutes record that “A. Carnegie went through the new building from top to bottom, was delighted with it, and declared it a first prize library, and the handsomest small library he had seen of all that he had given.” The Rideau Record, for May 1, 1906, reported that Carnegie was driven to the Library accompanied by his private secretary, Bertram, and was shown over every part of it. Moreover:

He showed the most unaffected pleasure with everything. He thought it was a beautiful site and he was as genuinely pleased with the library as the proverbial boy is supposed to be with a new top. He said we had go more for our money than any building he had ever seen in his life that was built in the regular way without labor or material being contributed, and he further said we had the handsomest small library he had ever seen. In connection with this it might be said that Smith’s Falls had the honour of showing him the first library that he had seen Canada. He had seen many of the libraries that he had given in the United States but this is his first visit to Canada and ours was the first library he had seen in this country… On the mantel in the reading room of the library there was a photograph of him in a frame. He noticed it and offered to put his autograph on it. In an instant it was out of the frame and borrowing a pen he wrote: ‘A rare pleasure to visit a library I have given. Success to Smith’s Falls.’

Those who have the privileges of enjoying the splendid facilities of the public library in Smiths Falls would find it difficult to believe that it had its inception in the early days, when books were scarce and the entire library was contained in clothes baskets, which were moved from house to house. The early pioneers were not in a position financially to enjoy the privileges of many books. In the time of the Reverand Mr. Aitken, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, a committee was formed and a pound or two subscribed. This good pastor loaned part of his own library. In a year or two, it was too large to moved from house to house, and was located in Brown’s store for a while, and later, was housed in Keith’s Bookstore. During this period, the mechanics institutes were organized in connection with established libraries. To comply with the regulations, the name was changed from “Elmsley Library” to “Elmsley Library and Mechanics Institute”, with William M. Keith as secretary-treasure and librarian. The library then housed in The Bookstore was moved to Washburn Block. It was in the The Bookstore that the Smiths Falls Review was published from 1863 to 1868. Mr. Dieith was one of the early pioneers who did much for the welfare of the community in an unostentatious way, being a charter member of the Curling Club; a patron of the Horticultural Society; a member of the school board and of the Town Council, for many years.

Remember When?

The Record News, July 10, 2002 Call it the library’s long, lost treasure. The renovation project at the town’s historic Carnegie library has uncovered a sculpture/relief that features a pair of dragons on opposite sides of an urn with a pair of female heads atop two columns. It had been hidden, presumably for decades, behind a large piece of plywood above one of the library’s two brick fireplaces. Needless to say, the discovery has been a shocking and pleasant development for library board members. “It was a big surprise,” board chair Chris Cummings said, during one of his regular project site inspections Friday morning, July 5. “We had no idea it was there. It’s such a unique piece. I’ve been in many historical buildings and never seen any thing like it.” And it’s not the only ‘find’ from the project’s early stages. When Carnegie granted the town $10,000.00 to construct a new library back around 1900, the only stipulation was that a representation of the sun – to signify knowledge – be placed somewhere above the building’s front door. Cummings says he’d stared at the front of the building “a hundred million times” and was about to conclude it had been removed at some time over the years. Then he looked up, way up. Above where the date ‘1903’ is placed, is a steel structure the purpose of which is, clearly, to fulfill Carnegie’s wish. “It’s solid galvanized steel, so it’s going to stay,” Cummings said. In addition, an old photo of the library signed by Carnegie himself – done during a brief visit to the structure shortly after its construction – has also been uncovered. Cummings says the benefactor made it a point not to visit any of the 2,500 community libraries his money helped build across the continent. But this was one opportunity he could not resist, and Carnegie paid tribute to the community writing, Smiths Falls had “the prettiest little library he’d ever seen,” Cummings said.

The Record News, Oct 22, 1997 The Smiths Falls Public Library encourage children to embrace their town this summer in a gigantic hug – and in turn received an award for creativie thinking. The “I Love Smiths Falls” summer program was a huge success with dozens of activities centered around the town and its history. but staff and volunteers involved in pulling the project together had no idea it would win the 1997 Minister’s Award for Innovation. The award is being given to the library for building partnerships within the community, linking local places, people and events with books and children. And staff are now hoping, that same community will pull through in their hour of need. The Smiths Falls Public Library has begun a campaigne to raise $25,000 to help balance the 1997 budget and “prepare us for when library funding becomes the jurisdiction of the Town of Smiths Falls…but that is the future and the need is now,” reads the letter included in a package appealing to library users. The library cannot continue to serve the community as it has unless this money is raised.

The Record News, September 20, 1995 The Environmental Resource Centre at the Smiths Falls Public Library was developed to provide the local community with the information it needs to be able to improve the local environment. It allows individuals to follow the environmental message to think globally and act locally by providing area residents with the necessary infformation resources. The library purchased materials for the Resource Centre with donations from REAL and the Rotary Club of Smiths Falls. The Environmental Resource Centre is used by students of all ages, teachers, community group leaders, members of the community who may have an interest in a specific environmental issue. The Resource Centre is intended to give users information on how they can make a difference on an individual basis. An attempt has been made to meet the information needs of all age groups and interest levels. The collection includes information on such various subjects as: Recycling Pollution Conservation of Natural Resources Ecology Consumer Information Environmental Policy Activities to encourage environmental awareness in children In addition to books, the Environmental Resource Centre has magazines, goverment publications, newsletter from local environmental groups such as REAL and videos. Library clients requiring information for research projects can obtain materials from libraries across Canada through inter-library loan. Access to Environmental Registry, a computerized bulletin board system (BBS) that enables residents of Ontario to obtain information when specific ministries in the government are making decisions that are environmentally significant is provided to area residents. Information on how to access the registry from your hom computer is available at the library. The Environmental Resource Centre is open to the public during regular library hours.

The Smiths Fall Public Library will receive a grant of $48,360 to help implement an automated library collection management system, Ontario Culture and Communications Minister Christine Hart announced recently. Funding is from the ministry’s Automation Program for Small Libraries (APSL). The program is designed to integrate libraies serving populations under 50,000 into the province-wide Ontario Public Library Information Network. A database will be created for the library and a suitable automated system installed. “Public liibraries in Ontario offer a wide range of services and resources to their patrons. My ministry is committed to improving access to these services for all Ontarians and to providing public libraries with the most cost-effective and effiecient means of serving their patrons. The automation of public libraries in smaller communities is part of that committment,” said Mrs. Hart.

The Record News, December 22, 1989 Jean McCabe retires after 20 years as Smiths Falls cheif librarian. She was instrumental in the blossoming of the library from one floor to a three storey library equipped with a reference section, a genealogical section, a children’s floor and an audio visual centre complete with a film library.

Excerpted from The Record News. June 27, 1984 On Sat., June 16, 1984, the Smiths Falls Public Library was officially designated a heritage building with the unveilling of a bronze plaque presented by the Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee. The plaque, inscribed with the Smiths Falls town crest, the date of the Heritage Act, and the name of the Committee, is mounted to the right of the main entrance on the south facade of the building. The library, as a designated building, is now eligible for grants to preserve the exterior. Wintario made a contribution to the cost of the placque. Since the enactment of the Heritage Act of 1974, the Ministry of Citizenship and Culture has spent serveral millions of dollars in the preservation of historic buildings.

Excerpt from The Record News September 5, 1979 Seeking a $2000.00 Wintario grant, the library is hoping to obtain The Record News on micro-film. Although the grant will not cover the bulk of the expense, The Record News will make up the difference.

October 9, 1974 The dedication of the O’Reilly Reference Room, named in honour of the late Mrs. Charles O’Reilly, a library board trustee for 22 years who worked tirelessly for advancement of the SFPL.

April 13, 1967 A small renovation of the Adult fiction area was completed with the addition of new rug, additional shelving and paint.

October 4, 1961 Dedication of the New Children’s Library. A large, gloomy upstairs hall had been transformed into a modern, spacious children’s library through the generous donation of $2,500 by the Smiths Falls Lions Club.

Fran Donnelly of St. Francis school, is the senior section winner of the brief essay contest sponsored in conjunction with Young Canada’s Book Week. Rodney Weir of Rideau School, is the first prize winner in the Junior section.